Zero (Japan/USA, 2020)

Zero, or Observational Film #9 Seishin 0, is New York based Japanese documentary filmmaker Kazuhiro Soda’s follow up to his 2008 film Observational Film #2 Mental. Soda pre-signs every film he makes with Observational Film #Number’, perhaps to emphasize his mode of filmmaking that he defines as observational – simply capturing what unfolds onscreen with no predetermined agenda or objective on his part. If Mental is about the various patients visiting the Chorale Okayama mental clinic, Seishin 0 pivots the camera to focus on the man who opened the doors for better, inclusive facilities for mentally ill people – 82-year-old psychiatrist Dr. Masatomo Yamamoto, the founder of Chorale clinic and a pioneer in setting up a helpful, inclusive mental healthcare system in Japan.

Seishin begins unclear and it takes about a good twenty minutes for the context to reveal itself. Dr. Yamamoto is soon going to retire from the clinic and rattled from the news of this impending departure, his patients are unsure of what lies ahead for them. That they have come to depend on each visit to meet Yamamoto as their lifeline becomes an understatement. Soda sits with his camera (we are the camera’s eye) in the non-descript clinic, filming them as they express their anxieties in great detail and at times repetitively. He zooms in on their faces, their hands, capturing their body language of acute nervousness and fear. As the camera pans to the doctor when he answers them, what becomes striking his way of talking and his calm demeanor. Never losing his patience, never raising his voice, slowly yet quite firmly, Yamamoto guides them to take steps to living normally, independently. He is aware he is on a very slippery slope, yet he perseveres.

Soda does not cut these lengthy conversations and the rare edits and sudden black and white flashbacks inserted ensure temporal economy to retain focus on Dr. Yamamoto and his patients. The patient sessions clock to complete the first hour of the film, and they come closest to the detached observational filmmaking that Soda asserts is his signature. The clinic closes, and the narrative gently segues to an old, stooped woman who has been brought to the clinic from the day-care home next door. She is Yoshiko Yamamoto, the doctor’s wife. As Soda follows her with his camera, Yamamoto soon joining in as they leave for their home, it becomes evident that Soda does have a purpose in his filming approach, that he doesn’t completely leave his film to chance. By the end, Seishin reveals to have a clear three act structure that carefully serves to form a revelatory understanding of the doctor – his work, his family, his life.

At the Yamamoto residence, and later at a very close friend’s, conversations about times gone by, about dinner and drinks, reveal Dr. Yamamoto as one who has taken his profession to heart, to the extent that it has affected his domestic life, affected Yoshiko, as he refused any boundary between the professional and personal. Soda’s deliberate close up shots of photos, haiku scrolls by Yoshiko, and other paraphernalia intend to draw a clearer character study of the Yamamotos. The doctor tellingly says Yoshiko was sacrificed as she came down with dementia in her later years. What is positively worthy is that mental health issues are not spoken about aloud for exposition. Yoshiko’s illness comes as a conversational aside much later in the film and it takes some time to understand what ails her. Soda’s portrayal of Yoshiko is respectful and even affectionate. As she takes each step forward in her life with her rock, Dr. Yamamoto, by her side, we are witness to a quiet love story that has lived well for more than half a century and calmly continues to do so.

Soda’s polite and basic filmmaking ethos is radical and essential to contemporary documentary practices. Seishin 0 is not a hot, trendy topical documentary that Soda shoots with a frenzy for viewership and awards. Like his other films, it is a documentation, a visual archive of regular people who radiate honesty and live with personal and professional dignity, no matter how big a problem crash lands on them.